That Eyes on the Prize, the classic series on the civil rights struggle, has become a focal point for the politicization of copyright restriction issues and open access shows how documentaries are being increasingly valued as part of an essential historical record. Because footage and music rights for the epic 14-part series expired in 1995, and the production company could not afford to relicense, the series has been in limbo, restricted from being rebroadcast on television during Black History Month, shown in theaters, or reproduced on DVD. As Lawrence Guyot, a civil rights leader with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, said on Democracy Now!, “This is analogous to stopping the circulation of all the books about Martin Luther King, [or] stopping the circulation of all the books about Malcolm X.…I would call upon everyone who has access to Eyes on the Prize to openly violate any and all laws regarding its showing.”
According to Education Week, many other documentaries used in classrooms have also slipped into dormancy. When rights expire, libraries restrict the circulation of films, and educators who had taped broadcasts off TV no longer have the right to show it. The same article quoted a 17-year-old who, after seeing the Eyes on the Prize series, observed, “It seems copyright law is running counter to the public interest.”
Meanwhile, even after what seems like a watershed year for the commercial and cultural potential of sociopolitical nonfiction films, “official” recognition of historically significant docs is still lacking. Even though the Academy traditionally votes with their pocketbooks by dishing out top awards to vacuous yet hugely moneymaking films like Titanic and The Lord of the Rings, this year they made no recognition of Fahrenheit 9/11. Yes, Michael Moore did disqualify the film by putting it on pay-per-view before the election (an Academy rule that has since been eliminated). But while many thought it foolhardy for a documentary to pursue the nomination for Best Picture (even though Fahrenheit rivaled those nominated in box-office receipts), the film did win the People’s Choice Awards for the favorite film of the year, the first time a doc has ever won. It even beat out films like Spiderman 2 and The Incredibles.
In spite of such popularity, after the “year of the political documentary,” the most “political” film nominated was Super Size Me. Important films like Control Room and The Corporation didn’t even make the short list. At a time when the controversy over Eyes on the Prize may help solidify just how historically, culturally, and even morally important some sociopolitical documentaries may be—and how their usage can be more easily restricted by copyright laws than books—the official recognition from Hollywood is lacking for films with this kind of historical significance. This is an unfortunate indication that some within the so-called Liberal Establishment are backing down from a fight. And unfortunately, this lack of effort might be just what the Bush administration hopes for.
Independent Lens (Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on PBS)
That’s right, here’s a reminder to check out films in this independent documentary film series, which seems to have ended just when you figured out what was playing when (and even those without basic cable, bless your souls, can watch it). March brings Sister of ’77 on the first, about a historic weekend in that year when 20,000 women and men attended the first federally funded National Women’s Conference in Houston. On March 22, Sunset Story takes us into a senior citizen home for political progressives, showing how both hope and frustration persevere; and on March 29 is Let the Church Say Amen, a powerful film about a storefront church in one of America’s poorest neighborhoods, just blocks away from the White House lawn.
The Docurama Awards Collection (www.docurama.com)
The Academy, to its credit, has recognized many great documentaries over the years. If you feel like a sampling (and you’ve got cash to burn), Docurama has compiled 12 Academy-Award winners as well as nominated documentaries in one set that includes classics from Best Boy and Scared Straight to 2001’s remarkable winner Murder on a Sunday Morning as well as the 2004 nominee The Weather Underground.